Saturday, July 1, 2006

Internet can aid in your home search or sale

By Liz Garone
Special to Valley Homes

In the past, homebuyers were often at their real estate agent's mercy when it came time to finding the newest homes on the market and locating information on house prices and neighborhoods. But all of that has changed with the wealth of free real estate sites now on the Internet.

Some 77 percent of homebuyers used the Internet to search for homes in 2005, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). That number is up from just 2 percent a decade earlier. While many people know about sites like, there are a number of lesser-known sites that buyers - and sellers - are only now beginning to consult and use to their advantage.

If you're simply curious about the current value of your own home - or your neighbor's - is the site to use. You just type in an address, and Zillow gives you the home's current value as well as the value of homes in the surrounding area. In addition, you can view aerial photos of homes, access recent sales of similar homes, and get school and crime data, all without any charge or need to give any contact information.

Truly techie types might enjoy where you can search the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), buy or sell a home online, all from the comfort of your living room and at a big discount. Currently, Redfin only lists homes in the Seattle area and the San Francisco Bay Area, but Sacramento "is already in the works" and Redfin will eventually expand to Modesto, according to company spokesman Bahn Lee.

While valley homes currently aren't listed through the Redfin site, that shouldn't stop buyers from using the company to purchase homes, Lee says. "We use a different model than traditional real estate brokerages," he says. "What we don't do is drive people around, chauffeuring them from house to house. But, anyone who goes through us will get a two-thirds rebate." The rebate is two percent of the traditional three-percent commission the buyer's side usually charges.

While the use of the Internet is taking an increasingly significant role in home purchases, employing an agent is by far the norm. Nine out of 10 homebuyers still use a real estate agent in the search process, according to the NAR.

And, with good reason, according to Kristi Engel, a Realtor with PMZ Real Estate in Modesto. "You still need a live person to advise you on the home buying or selling process," she says "from the home inspection to the condition of the home to the question of 'Is this value reasonable for this neighborhood?'"

Not that Engel is adverse to her clients using the Web as part of their buying or selling process. She encourages them to use the Web site, which includes tools like instant e-mail notification for buyers, finding out your home's worth, and recent neighborhood sales. "We can't be expected to be experts in every single neighborhood," she says. "The Internet can give clients a good idea of what's going on and help them narrow down their search. It's much more efficient for everyone."

For those people who want to try the Internet - but still want the safety net and security of an agent - there are also a number of hybrid sites out there. HomePages ( offers similar services to those of Zillow. But, in order to get it, you'll have to share some basic contact information, and agents' contact information is all over the site. You can also start your home search at or, the NAR's consumer Web site, and then get connected to an agent when you find a home that interests you.

While most buyers aren't ready to purchase their homes without the help of an agent, most want to at least feel like they have access to as much information as possible. There are a number of sites that talk about market conditions. For example, valley buyers and sellers can log on to, which offers information on current market conditions from local agents and Realtors.

And, if you need a little refresher course on mortgages before making the plunge, will give you just that. The site is run by Jack Guttentag, a retired finance professor. Guttentag taught at the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. The site offers calculators for everything from debt consolidation to deciding whether you should rent or own.

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